NEW YORK, April 5 (JTA) — With Yom Hashoah — Holocaust Memorial Day — approaching on April 19, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be both the child of survivors and the daughter of immigrants.
The Holocaust has had, obviously, an enormous impact on my identity and place in the world.
To be honest, I have never felt truly American. I grew up in two different worlds: one that didn’t exist any more and one in which I didn’t feel at home.
Like many children of immigrants struggling with the culture of America, I grew up in a time when it wasn’t chic to be a hyphenated American. I remember trying to explain to some non-Jewish friends that my parents were German Jews.
They couldn’t understand how one could be both German and Jewish. Even though their parents were Irish or Italian Catholic, they couldn’t grasp the concept. It was not possible to be defined by more than one identity.
I struggled with the question of whether I was an American Jew or a Jewish American. This was a serious question in the Jewish community during my late teens. How was I going to define my cultural identity?
I felt pulled to be American. I felt pulled to make aliyah to Israel. I felt pulled by some Jews who didn’t want to be reminded of the Holocaust or greenhorns, as newcomers to the United States were known.
Many times, I felt I was on the outside looking in. There were times when I wanted to jump into the melting pot, to be able to blend in. It was so inviting. I could forget. I could be a plain old American kid, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the porch swing in my overalls and baseball cap. But I couldn’t. Neither could most of my friends who were children of survivors.
Some of us had parents who told the neighborhood kids that the numbers on their arms were their phone numbers; some of us had parents who told stories of the Holocaust every night over dinner; and some of us had parents who never told us anything.
My father won’t wear striped clothing or live in a house surrounded by a fence. The part of me that still feels on the outside is sometimes unnerved by the phrase, “make your selection,” or by words like “camp,” “train” or “affidavit.” Words that are just words for most people resonate differently for me So do places. Sometimes I can’t go into a pizza parlor. It’s the ovens. I can’t push my way onto a crowded subway train or watch my father as he empties the ashes from the gas grill.
There are cultural identities that choose us and there are cultural identities that we choose. The Holocaust was an identity that chose me, and I chose to keep it. I have tried to run away, but each time I tried, the stronger the pull was to come back.
Finally, I stopped running. I asked my parents to tell me their stories. I have become a poet, writing about being the daughter of Holocaust survivors and my family’s stories.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to believe that my identity struggle is what makes me a part of American culture. Maybe the melting pot of America is really a melding pot, and being a part of American culture means that it is possible to have more than one identity.
I am Jewish, I am American, I am the daughter of Holocaust survivors, I am the daughter of German immigrants — and that is just the beginning.
And maybe American culture is changing too; it’s now more acceptable to be all of these things. I can be a hyphenated American with as many hyphens as I choose.
Janet R. Kirchheimer is the assistant to the president of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. A daughter of Holocaust survivors, she is completing a full-length collection of poems dealing with her extended family and the Holocaust.